Windows ’64

TJ Worthington on Play School

First published February 2004

Judging from the massive pre-launch publicity (which, for some reason, heavily involved two animated kangaroos called Hullaballoo and Custard), the arrival of BBC2 on 21 April 1964 was intended as a momentous, epochal event that would proudly herald a new dawn in television. However, immediately after the BBC2 logo rolled into view to the accompaniment of a jumbled blast of pompous brass, viewers were treated to nothing more epochal than a blank screen. A serious power cut affecting most of London had put paid to the fledgling channel’s chances of signposting its arrival with firework displays and Russian comedians, and instead it was reduced to shuffling quietly onscreen the following morning at 11am with the first proper scheduled day of programming. Thus the first programme to be broadcast on BBC2, and indeed the first programme to be broadcast in Britain in the new high-definition 625-line format, was not some weighty documentary or hard-hitting drama but the debut edition of Play School, a new regular children’s programme aimed at pre-school viewers.

The brainchild of Joy Whitby, formerly the producer of BBC Radio’s long-running and fondly recalled Listen With Mother slot, Play School was deliberately created in response to recent debate over the perceived poor standard of British pre-school education. It was reasoned that a judiciously crafted television show might be of considerable assistance in redressing the balance, and that the artier and more experimental BBC2 would be the perfect place to try out such a forward-thinking venture. To this end Whitby sought the advice of teachers and children’s writers whilst planning the format of the series. The result was a programme that sought to use pre-school educational techniques to introduce children to more advanced and sophisticated concepts. Discussion of the weather would always go further than mere identification of different weather conditions, and would make some attempt at explaining the meteorological concepts that gave rise to them. Meanwhile, reading the time from a clock face formed an integral part of each edition. In addition to this, the presenters were encouraged to adopt a manner that suggested that they were addressing each individual child viewer rather than speaking to the entire audience as a whole, lending the show a friendly air that suggested fun and the excitement of discovery rather than didacticism and schoolroom-style learning by rote; something of a radical and revolutionary approach for the time, and one that would have a lasting and fundamental effect on subsequent children’s programming. In fact, this formula was so successful and suitable for its audience that Play School would go on to become one of BBC2′s longest lasting programmes, while both Whitby and her Programme Assistants Cynthia Felgate and Anna Home would further their pioneering efforts and achievements during long and well respected careers in children’s television.

Broadcast each weekday morning (with an afternoon repeat on BBC1, preceding the day’s main children’s programme schedule, introduced a couple of years later), Play School was presented by a constantly changing set of male and female pairings from a sizeable rotating team of performers. Over the course of the programme’s long history, this pool of presenters would include a great many whose enthusiasm and versatility endeared them to young viewers, and led directly into career paths that they might not otherwise have adopted. In keeping with the progressive and unconventional approach that Whitby had employed in devising the series, the presenters were generally not aspirant actors or presenters as such (at least not in the sense that is more familiar to modern viewers) and were instead drawn from a variety of diverse backgrounds. Johnny Ball, for example, had been a standup comedian, while Toni Arthur was better known as a regular on the burgeoning folk-rock circuit (indeed, the albums that she made prior to joining the show are now hailed as classics of the genre, and change hands for hefty sums of money). Some presenters were simply nursery school teachers who had been invited to audition, and even those who arrived at the show through a more conventional career route were hardly obvious choices. Shortly before joining Play School, Julie Stevens had starred as the semi-regular character Venus Smith in The Avengers, while Floella Benjamin had come to prominence through her starring role in an early production of the controversial stage musical Hair, and Derek Griffiths and Fred Harris were both more closely associated with comedy (the former as a regular guest star in a variety of popular mainstream sitcoms and the latter with sophisticated radio comedy shows such as The Half-Open University and The Burkiss Way – and later the television sketch show End of Part One).

Perhaps most indicative of the mindset at work behind the programme, however, was the tale of how Brian Cant came to join the team of presenters. As he recalled in the Radio 4 documentary series Trumpton Riots in 1995, he was spotted by Joy Whitby whilst “playing” a roman figure on an urn in a Schools’ television programme, and invited to an audition in which he was simply thrown a cardboard box and asked to row out to sea (which, after some initial uncertainty, he did, managing to catch a Wellington boot full of custard with his fishing rod in the process).

Other fondly remembered names who appeared over the years included Chloe Ashcroft, Carol Chell, Carol Leader, Don Spencer, Gordon Rollings, Lionel Morton, Rick Jones, Maggie Henderson and Eric Thompson.

Many of the presenters would not find their enduring appeal limited to their appearances on Play School, as involvement with the series often led to work on other children’s shows that have enjoyed an equally well-regarded status. Quite often, it was Play School presenters who were called on to lend narration to new programmes intended for the BBC’s midday Watch With Mother slot, which was aimed at a roughly similar age group. Rick Jones arguably became better known as Yoffie, the bearded creative with hands that were made for making who assembled rudimentary animations and oversaw the adventures of Fingermouse, Flash, Gulliver and Scampi in Fingerbobs. Derek Griffiths lent his dextrous vocal and compositional skills to Bod and Heads and Tails (and a couple of smaller scale, less well remembered entries in the same timeslot, such as Ring-a-Ding and Over the Moon), as well as the fondly remembered drama-based BBC Schools’ production Look and Read. Brian Cant was chosen by producer Gordon Murray to provide the narration for Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Chigley, a role that benefited enormously from his experience and expertise in the genre. Cant even used to remove his shoes for the recording sessions to prevent any extraneous noise seeping into what he intentionally treated as “serious character work”. Floella Benjamin presented the latterday Watch With Mother show Hokey Cokey, but also became a mainstay of a great many programmes (including Lay on Five and the comedy sketch show Fast Forward) that were aimed towards a slightly older age group.

Some presenters moved into more surprising areas; Fred Harris enjoyed a long spell as the public face of the BBC’s range of home microcomputers and as the host of corresponding radio and television magazine programmes, Johnny Ball’s combination of exuberant wit and a love of mathematics and science were utilised to wonderful effect on shows such as Think of a Number, Think Again and Think Backwards (which for once really did succeed in achieving the aim of the otherwise generally hideously off-beam imperative to “make learning fun”), and there is no doubt that many viewers would be surprised to see the names of future Tomorrow’s World presenter Judith Hann and serious dramatic actor Brian Croucher amongst the roll call of Play School presenters. However, the most significant external venture began when one of the earliest Play School presenters was asked if he would like to provide the scripts and narration for an imported animation of French origin that had been adjudged to require something more than simple straightforward translation. The presenter in question was Eric Thompson, and the rewritten programme would become better known as The Magic Roundabout.

Yet no matter how seriously they may have taken their duties, the presenters had to share their airtime with a ramshackle assortment of five toys that rapidly established themselves as the real stars of the Play School. Humpty and Jemima were gaudy “soft toy” creations with a markedly 1960s-style design and colour scheme (although this of course was not particularly apparent when the show was still being transmitted in monochrome) whilst the appropriately named Big Ted and Little Ted were sturdy jointed teddy bears. There was in fact an infrequently glimpsed sixth “toy”, namely an antiquated rocking horse named Dapple who appears to have featured more prominently in spin-off books than he ever did in the actual series.

Whilst the unfortunate equine may have been quickly consigned to a shadowy background presence, it was plastic doll Hamble that proved to be the real misfit of the bunch. The other four main toys may have experienced enormous difficulty in their attempts to master the art of staying upright for the entire duration of a take (in fact, one of the legendary BBC VT department “Christmas Tapes” from the late 1970s preserved a wonderful moment in which Fred Harris, frustrated by the continual unscripted floorward tumbling of various toys, stages a mock-tantrum and knocks them flying across the studio, loudly bemoaning his having to work with “amateurs”), but Hamble’s cheap and tacky nature reputedly make her a nightmare to work with. As a result she was roundly loathed by cast and crew – and a sizeable proportion of viewers – alike. Needless to say, this led to all manner of maltreatment in the name of on-set amusement. On one occasion, Derek Griffiths discovered that someone had drawn pubic hairs on the unloved doll, causing the camera crew to laugh so hard recording had to be temporarily halted. Although the other toys were never immune to ill treatment – some presenters have subsequently admitted to staging impromptu football matches using Humpty as the ball, whilst Big Ted was once stolen from the studio during a recording break – none ever suffered to quite the same extent as Hamble.

Whether slowly levitated behind a presenter’s back courtesy of a cotton harness, impaled on a knitting needle in desperation at her failure to remain upright on camera, or simply pelted across the sound stage by a frustrated presenter lashing out with their script, the ungainly doll was never far from serious harm. The “Hamble” itself was apparently originally a mass-produced doll sold by Woolworths, but such was the fickle nature of the toy-buying public that by the time the BBC realised that they might need a second doll to act as an emergency standby replacement, the once-ubiquitous toys were nowhere to be seen. Whenever Hamble was damaged and required restorative “surgery” – which was often – the BBC were reduced to hiring out a replacement “stunt” Hamble from an astute doll collector based in Chester. The fate of this unfortunate doll is a more powerful statement on the futility and transitory nature of mass consumerism than any left-wing theorist or pressure group could ever hope to make.

The show also featured a variety of pets, including a rabbit and several different goldfish and white mice, but these tended to feature infrequently (perhaps due to some of the problems that were encountered with requiring animals to “perform” under what were quite restrictive studio conditions, most notoriously an incident in which some white mice that were participating in a pantomime simply curled up and died under the intense hear of the studio lights) and never achieved the same level of assimilation into the public consciousness as their contemporaries on Blue Peter. The one exception to this was the enduring and incredibly noisy Katoo, a vicious cockatiel that took great delight in savagely pecking any presenter that inadvertently strayed too close to his cage for comfort, and whose piercing shriek is surely indelibly imprinted onto the subconscious memory of anyone who watched the show regularly.

More fondly remembered were the pre-filmed inserts that featured in each show, generally wordless mini-documentaries about scenic areas of rural and maritime Britain or workplaces and industrial manufacture. These films were “seen” through one of three windows in the studio; arched, round or square (some erroneously insist that that were was in fact a fourth window, possibly out of confusion created by the opening titles’ reference to the Play School house having “windows, one, two, three, four”, but all available visual evidence points to the fact that, at least until the 1980s revamp, there were only ever three), which the camera would zoom in on and dissolve into the film to the accompaniment of a swirling harp motif. The choice of window was not in fact as random as it might have appeared, and was essentially dictated by the shape of the objects that the film revolved around, with the arched window representing anything ornate or architectural. This was turned into a daily guessing game by the presenters, who deliberately incorporated a pause into their introductions, but this was in fact easily manipulated by anyone who had managed to catch the morning showing and was able to dazzle unwitting viewers with their uncanny powers of prediction when it came to the afternoon repeat (indeed, Fred Harris recalled in Trumpton Riots that one of his children used to use this information to barter for sweets in the playground). The filmed inserts also served an additional purpose in the early days; with the programme recorded as “live” and any required edits to the completed master costing at least £50 each (which, on the show’s miniscule budget, was a cost that the production team could ill afford), they represented the only real opportunity for the cast and crew to have a short break during recording.

Another “guessing game” of sorts came with the daily appearance of the Play School clock, an oversized contraption that went though all manner of design changes, from a traditional clock face set in the middle of an ornate arrangement of Perspex “petals” to a Swatch-style gaudy four-coloured affair surrounded by pastel shading. It’s most fondly remembered in its longest lasting incarnation as a chunky blue construction with huge white numbers and hands. Viewers were invited to attempt to decipher the time (“the big hand is pointing to …”) while a decidedly inauthentic-looking prop (for example, “jelly and meringues” apparently made out of Perspex and cotton wool) rotated beneath to the strains of a ponderous tick-tocking clarinet piece. In what must have surely been one of the less prestigious achievements of the 1970s trade union crusades, the clock was temporarily silenced on more than one occasion by striking technicians.

Each edition of Play School opened with an animation of a self-drawing house, and the fondly remembered introductory rhyme “here is a house, here is a door, windows – one, two, three, four, ready to knock, turn the lock”. Although there would be several revamps of the opening titles during the course of the programme’s long history (and indeed of the opening rhyme, which later became “ready to play, what’s the day”), they would always retain this basic format. The first such opening sequence featured a rather spindly house resembling the sort that might be found in the sketchy, archaic illustrations that litter children’s books from the early 1960s, accompanied by a tinkly theme tune that bore superficial stylistic similarities to the contemporaneous theme from Jackanory. This original sequence looks somewhat eerie from a present-day perspective, but it must have seemed perfectly acceptable to the pre-school viewers of the day as it would remain in place for pretty much the rest of the decade.

As an aside, it should be noted that the earliest editions differed from the more widely remembered format of Play School in a number of minor but significant ways. The opening rhyme was originally accompanied by several other corresponding pieces dotted throughout the programme (“here are our windows which open wide, to show both town and countryside”), and the five weekdays on which the show went out were initially given individual themes – Monday was “Useful Box Day”, Tuesday “Dressing Up Day”, Wednesday “Pets”, Thursday “Imagination” and Friday “Science”. These features would remain in place for a number of years but were eventually dropped, presumably because they proved to be too constricting for a series that thrived on creativity and the illusion of spontaneity. When the programme finally moved into colour (the date that this changeover took place is difficult to ascertain; there are certainly colour recordings of the show dating from 1968 and 1969 in existence, but if the Radio Times is to be believed, it was not broadcast in colour until well into 1970), the animation was updated to feature a more stylised orange house and a laid-back jazzy theme tune.

This second theme was more closely aligned to the musical content of the programme as a whole; Play School featured songs and musical accompaniment (overseen for many years by BBC children’s programming mainstay Jonathan Cohen) throughout its existence, but it always managed to retain a truly individual and distinctive flavour. With so many experienced musicians amongst the presenters, it was hardly surprising that some of their own influences and musical backgrounds would come to flavour the numbers that they were called on to perform. Some notable numbers are not tremendously far removed from the sort of folk rock that could be found on Toni Arthur’s serious musical efforts, whilst at other times they are infused with a simplistic, upbeat flavour reminiscent of late 1960s pop songs (indeed, on one occasion during the late 1970s Fred Harris was called on to sing Penny Lane with the toys acting as the various characters in the song, including Little Ted as the fireman complete with a portrait of the Queen that was far too big to have ever fitted in the diminutive bear’s pocket). Several albums of songs from Play School were released on BBC Records and Tapes, including Play On, Sing a Song of Play School and Bang on a Drum. The latter is now highly sought after on account of featuring Rick Jones’ title track, a moody jazzy number featuring a Doors-like piano riff and a remarkable shuffling drumbeat that has since become a favoured loop with dance music artists, heard most prominently on Coldcut’s highly regarded remix of Eric B and Rakim’s epochal rap track Paid In Full; something that is a source of no small astonishment to anyone who remembers listening to it on face value as a child!

Rather than sell the programme overseas as a finished product, which would have been rendered impractical by the fact that its educational aspects were deeply rooted in the English language, the BBC instead opted to make it available to overseas broadcasters in “kit” form, providing the props, scripts, graphics and films needed to make the show which they could then adapt as they saw fit. Play School ended up being made as far afield as Germany, Norway and Iran, although often the resultant shows would bear only a superficial stylistic resemblance to the original. In Australia Play School was presented by Anne Haddy (later to become better known as Helen Daniels in Neighbours), whilst for some reason the Swiss contrived to nail Humpty down. Needless to say, many of the broadcasters that purchased the Play School format decided to pass on the opportunity to feature a Hamble of their very own.

Whilst the series was busy establishing itself across the globe, its continued popularity in Britain was sufficient to inspire a spin-off series, which at least initially was partially funded by the extra revenue generated by overseas sales of Play School. (Although not strictly a spin-off as such, honourable mention must be made here of Ragtime, a mid-1970s entry in the Watch With Mother timeslot presented by Fred Harris and Maggie Henderson, and featuring a multitude of cloth creations that were at least in the visual tradition of Humpty and Jemima.) Fronted by Brian Cant, and again with music provided by Jonathan Cohen, Play Away was essentially a more humorous and less directly educational variation on the original series, which was aimed at slightly older viewers and mixed exuberant songs with comic sketches. Cant and Cohen were joined by many of their fellow Play School presenters, including Toni Arthur, Carol Chell, Julie Stevens and Carol Leader, however Play Away would also regularly feature new performers whose style was suited to the demands of the programme. Some of them went on with subsequent careers to become household names; amongst those who made early appearances in Play Away were Anita Dobson, Tony Robinson and, as television clip shows never tire of reminding their audiences, Jeremy Irons. Play Away would continue in its regular weekly slot for over 13 years, finally coming to an end in 1984 as the result of a particularly severe round of BBC cost-cutting (which also put paid to another enduring mainstay of the BBC’s children’s schedules, the variety show Crackerjack).

Play School itself had been subject to some drastic alterations the previous year, when a daytime scheduling reshuffle made in anticipation of the BBC’s imminent launch of a full daytime service saw the morning transmission shunted to BBC1. Presumably in the hope of effecting a smoother transition, the programme itself was overhauled and given a more sophisticated, humorous and “zany” slant intended to bring it more closely in line with the rest of BBC1′s children’s output. A more modern theme tune and slick contemporary graphics and set design were the most immediately obvious changes, but these were simply cosmetic modifications and more drastic alterations could be seen within the programmes themselves. Hamble was gone, replaced by an ethnic doll named Poppy, and wacky anarchic glove puppets Bingo the dog and Cuckoo (who lived inside the redesigned clock) were introduced, as were a number of comic inserts including the reasonably amusing Breakfast Time parody TTV (the title was later borrowed for an unrelated and far less interesting BBC children’s programme presented by a puppet cat named Scragtag). However, the most significant development was that older presenters such as Brian Cant and Fred Harris (neither of whom were particularly old at that point) were quietly “retired”. Many had misgivings about this move, Cant rationalising that children often look to older relatives for stories and entertainment, whilst Harris simply felt that the new approach unfairly neglected the pre-school viewers that the programme existed to cater for. It would be wrong to write off the revamped Play School entirely – it certainly made for entertaining enough viewing at the time – but there was a definite sense that the programme had lost its direction somewhat and after a while many of the newer features were dropped and some of the longstanding presenters re-engaged. However, the failure of the show’s attempt to adapt with the times perhaps signalled that it had become out of touch with current thinking on children’s television, and in 1988 Anna Home – who by then had become Head of Children’s Programming at the BBC – took the controversial but inevitable decision to cancel the programme that she had helped to develop nearly 25 previously and which had clocked up over five thousand editions. It was to be replaced with Playdays, a new programme that was developed with the same sort of close attention to the modern world of pre-school learning that had originally shaped Play School.

While Play School is certainly fondly remembered, sadly it is now rarely glimpsed. The original toys reside in a suspiciously heavily-armoured case at the Bradford Museum of Film, Television and Photography, and aside from a now-deleted video compilation entitled Play School Replay (which featured Brian Cant discussing archive clips in what was to all intents and purposes a primitive precursor to the now-ubiquitous DVD “commentary”) and the occasional brief clip on a nostalgia show and the BBC website, there has been no sign of stylised self-drawing houses, “stunt” Hambles, arched windows or banging on a drum with a thump on television for many years now. However, as part of the BBC’s 60th birthday celebrations in 1982, former chairman George Howard arranged for an entire day’s worth of programming to be recorded and buried in a time capsule in the grounds of his home Castle Howard, which is not due to be excavated and opened until 2182. Assuming that it will not have suffered the same fate as another famous BBC children’s television-related time capsule by that point, it remains to be seen whether or not the children of the future will find Hamble just as loathsome.